The Cora Conundrum

It feels like just yesterday that Alex Cora was being introduced as the new Red Sox skipper, photographed powerfully striding across the Mass Pike on the David Ortiz Bridge, up to his new fiefdom, Fenway Park. He was young, a former Sox player from the 2007 championship team, friends with former teammate Dustin Pedroia, and a 14-year veteran of the game with a great reputation. Post-retirement, he’d gone on to become a well-respected analyst at ESPN and was fresh off coaching a ne’er-do-well franchise to their first World Series championship. He was to be the Red Sox’ first Latino manager, a youthful, enthusiastic symbol of a bright future. Players and fans alike could not have been more thrilled.

He delivered immediately: a franchise-record 108-win regular season, their 3rd consecutive division title, and the team breezed through the postseason. Or rather, bulldozed their way to their 4th championship in fifteen years. Everything was coming up Cora.

The second season wasn’t nearly as successful, but the Sox still managed to eke out a winning record. Many of Cora’s managerial decisions ranged from questionable to confounding, but much of the team’s dissolution could be chalked up to injuries and a lack of new acquisitions. The Benintendi leadoff experiment, for example, was a frustrating failure that dragged on for far too long, but there was only so much Cora could do with a revolving door of Triple-A bullpen pitchers and a skeleton crew for a starting rotation.

Mercifully, the season came to an end when September did. But as the focus shifted to postseason baseball starring Cora’s former team, he found himself in the spotlight again when the Houston Astros’ sophisticated sign-stealing scheme was uncovered. The Athletic reported that he’d “played a key role” in the Astros developing unorthodox methods of stealing opposing teams’ signs by using illegally-placed cameras and televisions, and banging on trash cans to alert players of pitch types. The Yankees even alleged that the Astros whistling in the dugout during the ALCS was a part of their connivance.

Throughout November, follow-up reports stated that MLB was reviewing thousands of emails and interviewing Astros manager A.J. Hinch, Cora, and former Astro Carlos Beltran, who had retired after the 2017 season and had just been announced as the new manager of the New York Mets. MLB also planned to expand its investigation to other teams, and Commissioner Manfred spoke of ‘punishments of unprecedented severity.’ At the time, as with today, the Red Sox announced their full cooperation with the investigation.

Today, The Athletic once again broke an electronic sign-stealing story, once again, with Alex Cora at its epicenter. This time, however, it is the Red Sox who stand accused, though the article also names teams such as the Yankees committing exactly the same infraction, with misbehavior dating as far back to 2015. Multiple sources told The Athletic that “other teams likely were doing the same.” Of course, the focus is on the Red Sox, because they’re the ones who won a World Series, and because of the Alex Cora Connection. The story alleges that the Red Sox misused their video replay room in order to steal signs. Not nearly as evil-mastermind-esque as the Astros convoluted scheme, but still illegal. As the article put it bluntly: “there is cheating and then there is cheating-cheating,” naming the Red Sox as the former, and the Astros as the latter.

It’s important to note that the method of sign-stealing the Red Sox are accused of was not possible during the postseason, since MLB puts people in those video-replay rooms as monitors for this exact type of infraction. So for now, it seems that their 11-3 postseason record was truly earned. Considering the postseason showcases the best teams in competition, their achievements speak to the Red Sox’ true skill and talent.

The other key distinction from the Astros’ method that The Athletic story specified was that the Red Sox could only utilize their ill-gotten info when they had a runner on second base, and occasionally, first base. It’s also worth mentioning that it is up to pitchers and catchers to devise their sign sequences, and often, teams have studied them coming into the games; if they don’t switch them up, it’s easy to decode, and there’s no rule against decoding the signs the old-fashioned way, only when technology is involved. Boston ultimately led the league in runs scored in 2018, but the fact remains that the Sox had to win a considerable number of regular season games to earn a ticket to the postseason. 2018 was a year of very talented teams, the first time in MLB history that three teams in either league won 100+ regular-season games. But there’s no way to know how many of Boston’s 108 wins were won honestly.

“There is cheating and then there is cheating-cheating”

– Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal,The Athletic

There are two themes that link the Astros and Red Sox together in these matters: championships, and Alex Cora. Other teams, like the Yankees, abused the video-replay room, but only two teams won an astounding number of games over their championship seasons with Cora in leadership positions. And Cora has his Boston job in large part due to the success he experienced in his Houston job. But now it looks like he’s about to get two very unpleasant performance reviews.

The problem with cheating, as with any form of dishonesty, is that once labeled a cheater or a liar, it casts aspersions over everything one does. Barry Bonds was a great player before performance-enhancing drugs, but without being able to pinpoint when he started using them, there’s no definitive way to know how much of his success was truly him, and how much of it was PEDs. For Cora, in charge of not only himself, but the entire team; his indiscretions insult the integrity and skill of his players.

In 2017, John Farrell’s final year as manager, the Red Sox were punished for using Apple Watches to electronically steal signs, part of a he-said-she-said double-cheating investigation in which the Yankees were also found to be at fault for improper use of technology. Both teams were fined. At the time, Commissioner Manfred stated, “I have received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type.” It’s doubtful he meant they could still cheat without Apple Watches, since MLB then sent a 3-page memo to all teams’ leadership with newer, more specific rules about electronic sign-stealing before the start of the 2018 season. As of 2019, all telecasts in the clubhouse and locker rooms are on a mandatory 8-second delay in this Baseball Big Brother Era.

Between the Astros cheating investigation and the Boston investigation, it’s likely that Cora will receive a hefty punishment. As he should. And in the meantime, while we wait for Rob Manfred to pull a Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and deliver his sentencing, here are some questions worth pondering:

First, how does MLB clean itself up? That’s a loaded one, with multiple facets; baseball today is a like a dog who rolled in the mud and then got sprayed by a skunk and got a ride home on the back of a garbage truck. A good way to start would be to get rid of video replay rooms. Their existence invites teams to cheat. There’s no justification for cheating, but it seems like a win-win for Manfred to simply remove the temptation to cheat, which, as an added bonus, speeds up the game, benefitting his precious “Pace of Play” crusade.

Second, how does MLB rebuild – or, if we’re being realistic – build some trust within the league? Teams don’t trust each other anymore. Maybe they never did, but they certainly don’t now. Baseball has become about fear, suspicion, dishonesty, and appalling behavior, from the head honchos of the front offices to the athletes in locker rooms. MLB has to put people in rooms to police teams, teams go tattling to Manfred, levying accusations at anyone and everyone, and it seems as though everyone is cheating or worse. This game is dirty, and it needs a thorough scouring, from top to bottom. Cheating has been around sports since before baseball was invented, and it’s not going to die out anytime soon, but MLB needs to figure out a way to get teams to play fair, rather than suggesting teams learn to cheat smarter.

The third question is distinctly more targeted: what do the Red Sox do about Alex Cora? His reputation is doubly tarnished now, and it will be extremely difficult to return it to its former luster. The Patriots are still being called cheaters now, years later. But it’s also a Catch-22 for the Red Sox: firing him after benefitting from and aiding his deceit would be a callous move, making him a Dombrowski-esque scapegoat. Keeping him ensures they’re all labeled cheaters, too. It seems likely, though, that the Red Sox will want to wash their hands of him and this entire situation, and attempt to ameliorate the situation by hitting a complete reset button.

MLB has yet to announce punishments for the Astros, but now that Cora is looking at punishments for his involvement with both teams’ schemes, a suspension seems likely.  A manager’s suspension has the unfortunate side-effect of leaving players without leadership, but then again, it’s not great leadership if the manager is telling the team to cheat. And given the Red Sox’ offseason moves and lack of intent to contend in 2020, it might not matter so much if they have a manager, or not. The Sox are also in danger of losing draft picks, since they reneged on their promise to Manfred in 2017, so all in all, the future looks bleak in Boston.

Photo courtesy of the Boston Red Sox

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